The Four Seasons: Ten Years And Still Hanging On
IN AUGUST LAST YEAR Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons celebrated ten years as one of the most successful recording groups America has ever produced.
Their total world record sales now stand somewhere between 80 and 90 millions. Well below the Beatles, but higher than many more consistent artists like The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater. But in the rush to document everybody who trod a recording studio floor from 1950 onwards the Four Seasons seemed noticeable by their lack of attention. Maybe as Nik Cohn points out in his definitive book Wopbopaloobop alopbamboom (Paladin) they were such a perfect example of pure pop music as to be unanalysable. Nevertheless, their recording history and career is as worthy of documentation as any other vocal group. Perhaps this article will help to put them back into perspective in rock's history.
Frankie Valli was born Frankie Castelluccio in Newark, New Jersey, in 1937 and at 17 joined up with two original Seasons Nick Massi (Newark, New Jersey, 1935) and Tommy DeVito (Bellville, New Jersey, 1936) plus DeVito's brother Nick, to form the Variatones. Singing mainly in a country vein, they gigged around New Jersey until Valli decided to risk a solo career.
Where the group had failed, he managed to grab a record contract and a local hit 'My Mother's Eyes'. But the follow-up eluded him as he worked more and more regularly his recording career began to slide. On the way down he recorded for Mercury ('Somebody Else Took Her Home'), Decca ('Take A Chance'), and for Epic under the name Frank Tyler.
In 1956 he rejoined the Variatones and secured a contract with RCA with a new name, The Four Lovers. Under this guise they mimicked the top Black DooWoppers of the day and finally crashed the charts with 'Apple Of My Eye'/'Girl In My Dreams'. As with Valli's solo efforts the follow-ups eluded them. Their subsquent 45's ('Honey Love', 'Lovey Dovey', 'The Stranger', 'Shake A Hand') all fell by the wayside. Their one album for RCA, Joyride, ironically can now command upwards of 100 dollars amongst US oldie group freaks. When RCA let them go they signed with Capitol, and carried on climbing down.
The turning point came when Valli met Bob Crewe in a publishing house. Crewe was an ex-male model, ex-would-be teen idol (one hit 'The Wiffenpoof Song') turned record producer and label owner. Along with Frank Slay Jnr, he had the Swan label which had enjoyed a few big sellers notably with Freddie Cannon, The Rays' 'Silhouettes' (a British hit much later for Herman's Hermits) and Billie and Lillie's 'La De Dah'. Crewe and Slay worked in much the same way as the West coast one shot producers like Gary Paxton and Kim Fowley, using session artists and back up singers for purely 'product' orientated record marketing.
The Four Lovers were signed as instrumentalists and session singers. It is a popular misconception probably brought about by the Seasons early appearances on British TV that they are the standard black-type vocal group neatly crowded around a couple of mikes performing precision choreography. They did, and still do, play on their records and live shows. Drums, rhythm and brass are provided by their band, and keyboards, lead and bass are handled by three of the Seasons. They did extensive session work for Crewe notably on Freddie Cannon's many hits.
Bob Crewe was also an independent producer and, dropping the name of The Four Lovers, attempted to exploit the group's potential by recording them for various labels under various names. Among the more traceable items were The Village Voices ('Red Lips') Billy Dixon & The Topics, and The Romans ('Comma Si Bella'/'This Is Real'). This latter master was sold to Gene Chandler, who promptly allowed it to appear on an unprecedented number of US supermarket oldie albums when the group finally made it.
In 1960 Nick DeVito split and in his place came Bob Gaudio (born Bronx, New York, 1942) who had been, with Al Kooper, a founder member of the Royal Teens for whom he had written the million selling 'Short Shorts'. Gaudio and Crewe began to write together in a concerted effort to establish the group, the writing combination which was eventually to establish them. In the meantime, in what must have been pure desperation, Crewe turned to recording them solo. Bob Gaudio had material released under the name Turna Decentury and Nick Massi was cut as Alex Alda!
Early in 1962 Crewe placed two tapes with George Goldner's ailing End/Gone combine, and another name was to be born. Legend has it that they peered from their office window and rested their eyes on the neon sign of New York's best known restaurant, The Four Seasons. I always find it incomprehensible that no-one had used this obvious group name before 1962! The record in question 'Bermuda'/'Spanish Lace' (not the Gene McDaniels number) bombed out like most of their previous efforts for Crewe, but it showed signs of what was to come. Valli sang in a restrained falsetto similar to the style of many black groups of the period.
In The Sound Of The City Charlie Gillett remarked that their sound was unoriginal inasmuch as it derived from the earlier hits by The Diamonds or The Zodiacs. This is too sweeping, because, as The Four Lovers, Valli had used what had since his childhood been a party piece, an impersonation of the forties star Rose Murphy. Frankie Valli's ludicrous range from tenor to a falsetto that was tougher than Jerry Colonna at his shrillest was to stand them in good stead for the rest of the decade.
With their initial effort as the Four Seasons unsuccessful, Gaudio and Crewe began to work in earnest and finally came up with a ludicrously constructed novelty song which required Valli to sing in total falsetto at an incredibly high range. 'Sherry' was not placed with Gene but with the most famous black-owned independent of the time, Chicago based Vee Jay label. 'Sherry' broke quickly after its release in August 1962, went straight to No. 1 and sold well over two million copies. They had finally arrived. A look at the Billboard charts for August '62 reveals the diverse material reaching the Top Ten. 'Rambling Rose' – Nat King Cole; 'Roses Are Red' – Bobby Vinton; 'Things' – Bobby Darin. Only 'Breaking Up Is Hard To Do' by Neil Sedaka; 'Sheila' by Tommy Roe and Little Eva's 'Locomotion' were really grabbing the well scrubbed all American youth in any positive direction. Apart from the world of rhythm and blues the U.S. record business was at its worst-ever creative period. The airwaves were drowning in a sea of slush as mom-and pop singalongs rushed up and down the Hot 100. Everything pointed in 'Sherry's' favour.
Here was a song guaranteed to turn on the teens and turn off the folks, but it didn't work out like that. The Seasons didn't have that punk, greasy teenage look to get the girls all hot, they didn't leer out of photos like police mug shots. They were four clean-cut Italian boys from New Jersey, real neat in their dinner jackets and bow ties and, judging by those early photos, it was hard to believe the birthdates. They were readily accepted by all age groups. Mom was really pleased to see four guys who looked like some nice elder brothers instead of those awful gangster types like Dion Di Mucci.
Before 'Sherry' had time to twist till midnight let alone all night, 'Big Girls Don't Cry' was let loose to reclaim the top slot in October, and in December when it was still in the top twenty they followed the pattern of most upcoming bands of the day. With Christmas on the way, out came the album The Four Seasons Greetings and from it a 45, 'Santa Claus Is Coming To Town', was pulled. It was one of the best ever Christmas hits with Valli screaming out the tiny tots lyric like a man possessed:
You'd better watch out,
You'd better not cry-y-y ba-aa-aa-be
Tellin' you why-y-y-y-y
Santa Clause is comin' to town
Forget the Spector, Jackson Five and Beach Boys efforts, this was the killer. In true Christmas fashion it soared up to number 23 and out again in three weeks. Like they say, if you can sell Christmas records you've really made it.
They were back at the top slot in January '63 with 'Walk Like A Man'. Like their previous hits it had little connection with its predecessor. They never fell into that too-familiar follow-up syndrome. Three consecutive number ones was no common occurrence and the attendance records at their personal appearances were being broken all over the states. They were hot.
Never having signed a contract with Vee Jay (they remained independent, merely submitting masters) the band announced litigation for hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of unpaid royalties. In the inevitable courtroom battle that went on until 1966, Vee Jay were awarded the right to keep the masters submitted until such time as the company folded, when they would be returned. In 1966 Vee Jay, the greatest example of black initiative and independence, finally folded, a tragic 2 million dollars in the red. Not even the Beatles, whose masters they had picked up, could save them. The Four Seasons, free to negotiate, placed their records with the giant Mercury Corporation, and finally reappeared on the Philips label.
In the six months they'd been away (only Vee Jay album cuts has been out on 45) a phenomenal change had taken place in America's record buying taste. With the demise of most of the homegrown talent, the Seasons and the Beach Boys stood alone against the English onslaught. 'Dawn (Go Away)' was their first release on Philips and to the industry's surprise it sailed into the chart and rested at number 3, flanked at 1,2,4 and 5 by The Beatles on three different labels. Not to be outdone the Seasons had 'Stay' on Vee Jay on the top twenty at the same time. From February 1964 to early in 1965 they had nine hit singles on Philips and Vee Jay including the classic 'Rag Doll'.
The group had much success in England at the time: both with the record buyers and with producers and artists, notably Andrew Oldham who was very much influenced by Crewe productions to the point of producing an almost note-for-note copy of 'Rag Doll' for American singer Bobby Jamieson. Crewe himself was becoming more and more influenced by the work of Phil Spector in his own productions for The Four Seasons. 'Big Man In Town' in November '64 was standard Spector format incorporating in its lyrics one of the major factors of the group's continued success, inherent masochism. Crewe and Gaudio consistently wrote lyrics in which the boy was always in love with a girl much too good for him or so much in love that he would beg or plead for affection. This theoretically enabled not only the female buyers to identify with a premise that effectively crushed the male ego but also attracted the males who could sympathise with a spurned lover. Of course, probably a more important part of the songs' success was the pure commercial 'sound', Crewe's super-cool productions and Charlie Callello's arrangements.
Callello came even more to the fore during 1965 when he stood in for Nick Massi on bass guitar. Massi could no longer stand the pressures of constant touring and so retired. It was Massi himself who finally found the group a permanent replacement in Joe Long (Elizabeth, New Jersey, 1941) who had a long career in various forms of music, if at a fairly local level. By this time the group had dropped the 'Bass Man' vocal tricks of Massi, so the change was hardly noticeable.
1965 produced more changes when Crewe recorded them on a number of Bob Dylan tunes for potential album release. One, a version of 'Don't Think Twice It's Alright', was considered too good not to release as a 45. Although hyped by the publicists as something new for the group, and released under the pseudonym of 'The Wonder Who', it was merely Valli's Rose Murphy impersonation with a touch of Shirley Temple and wasn't new to record either. On their first Vee Jay album a version of 'I Can't Give You Anything But Love' was sung in the same style and on The Four Seasons Christmas Album 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus' was given a similar treatment. Nevertheless the record was a huge hit and reached the top ten Stateside but nowhere else.
The other major policy change of 1965 was taken by Frankie Valli himself. With the approval of the other members of the band he decided to pursue a solo career within the structure of the group. The first item released was a regional hit only, but the song went on to become a million-seller for the Walker Brothers, 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore'. His subsequent solo items throughout '66 were moderate hits, including 'You're Ready Now', which was to prove another turning point in England during 1971. It was not until 1967, though, that Valli finally established himself as a solo singer with the much recorded near-standard 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You', a million-seller.
In October of 1965 'Let's Hang On' put the group back at number one. A distant change of style, inasmuch as the musical policy of the band had changed little in three years. Gone was the distinct falsetto; Valli brought his range down and Gaudio, second tenor, brought his up. This perfectly matched the then popular 'uptown' R & B sound of some of the biggest sellers of the year; Len Barry's '1,2,3'; Fontella Bass' 'Rescue Me', and the Four Tops' 'Something About You'. The heavy backbeat and wall brass on these records was the inspiration for 'Let's Hang On' and the group in danger of losing touch came right back as big as ever.
From then to February 1968 the band enjoyed eighteen hit records. These were split over two labels and the three recording outlets of The Four Seasons, Frankie Valli and The Wonder Who? With their album sales mainly repackaged greatest-hits sets (several times!), their music publishing companies, Gaudio's writing and the group's record royalties plus in-person performances they were splitting something in the region of two million dollars a year. But changes were coming in 1968.
In the middle of the year they released an unexpected new single. 'Saturday's Father' dealt in a very straightforward manner with the age-old American problem of the effect of divorce on young children. Although it might seem banal the message came over clearly due to the intelligent lyric of Bob Gaudio and his new partner, singer/songwriter Jake Holmes. The record was an experiment by the group as a curtain-raiser to the album that was going to, in their opinion, finally break them in the album market.
The members of the group, like so many American performers of the time, had finally agreed with the New Left that all was not well with the American Dream. The album was to reflect the sociological and psychological problems of living in the urban jungles of the U.S.A. They took several months off to record the album, dangerously cutting themselves off from their public.
Gaudio worked with Jake Holme, an obscure folk orientated singer/songwriter, whose major claim to fame was the Jackie Lomax/George Harrison produced version of his song 'Genuine Imitation Life' on Apple.
Due to the unimpressive chart position of 'Saturday's Father', Philips were not impressed with the project. They were even less impressed with the bill for the sleeve and artwork for the album, a mock newspaper with lyrics to the ten tracks scattered throughout plus an 8-page comic section insert.
The album Genuine Imitation Life Gazette – 4 Seasons Edition was finally released after threats to Mercury over re-signing contracts to mixed critical reaction and disappointing sales (approx. 150,000 copies). East Coast oldies freaks didn't give a damn for no progressive s*** and the new breed of dopers and heads on the West Coast couldn't get it together with a bunch of straights like the Four Seasons. Now the album is seen as influential and important, three years ahead of its time, but that did the Four Seasons no good at all.
Two cuts from the album were released as a 45 but with Philips' consistently bad distribution and patchy promotion it found no success. Philips' poor promotion and distribution within the US and even worse service in England and Europe (at that time) were responsible for the failure of the album and the band's subsequent refusal to sign a further 5-year contract.
The group virtually retired from recording and performing whilst Gaudio and Holmes were commissioned by Frank Sinatra to write the concept album Watertown for him. Sinatra was impressed with Gazette and had been convinced by Valli, whom he had befriended on a Democratic campaign, that the two of them should write for him. The resultant album was a fine example of modern ballad singing and certainly Sinatra's only really positive excursion into contemporary music.
Desperate for a 45, they signed on Bob Crewe's newly formed Crewe label for one record 'And That Reminds Me', in September 1969, marks the last time The Four Seasons have appeared on the American best seller lists. Soon afterwards the group re-signed with Philips/Mercury for US distribution only. Which explains why none of their recordings for Philips since 1969 have been released here.
In April 1970 a new album was released, Half And Half. Five tracks were by the group and five by Frankie Valli as soloist. It didn't sell. During the year, Valli issued two 45's, 'Circles In The Sand' and 'You've Got Your Troubles' while the band issued 'Patch Of Blue' and the brilliant 'Lay Me Down'. All were commercial and contemporary enough to make it but they didn't. Early in 1971 the single 'Where Are My Dreams' was the last straw. Incensed by what they alleged to be Philips' still inept promotion they bought out of their contract, at the same time exchanging writs with Bob Crewe.
It's sad in a way that they fell out with Philips in the UK because their promotion department went through some heavy changes during 1971 and emerged as one of the most enlightened here. Keeping a close eye on the disco scene (something most companies ignore until it kicks them in the teeth) they noticed that vast sums were changing hands for copies of Valli's early solo item 'You're Ready Now'. It was quickly reissued, and due to diligent promotion very nearly topped the English charts.
The group arrived in England sans record label, billed as Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons for a short concert tour. Their stage act, although minus Tommy DeVito (recovering from an operation), was spectacular, Gaudio was on organ, Long on bass guitar with stand-in Bob Grim on lead and Valli just vocals plus their own drummer and backing. An air of reverent self parody was evident throughout their act as Vallie collapsed in hysterics during the opening bars of 'Big Girls Don't Cry', turning to Bob Gaudio to ask if they really sang that way. Joe Lang acted as spokesman for the group onstage and consistently used the range of Valli's voice for the butt of jokes, usually citing his size or masculinity. Make no mistake about the authenticity of their recorded sound, all the famous numbers were faithfully reproduced. Roaring through the greatest hits they presented one of the most exciting acts seen in England for some time.
To compensate for the lack of current material they signed for a one-record deal plus an option for further releases with UK Kinney. Papers signed, they trooped down to Morgan Studios and proceeded to cut one of the worst records of all time, 'Whatever You Say', on which only Valli is actually heard. When Kinney, via their Warner Bros, label, finally issued it in September '71, no one considered the B side as a possible alternative. In contrast to 'Whatever You Say' which is a mess of a record, the other track cut here, 'Sleeping Man', deserves wider hearing. It owes little to the recognised sound of The Four Seasons and is best described as somewhat Free influenced, a great example of English rock in fact. Suffice to say Kinney never bothered to promote the record obviously seeing the awfulness of their choice of A side.
Before they arrived for a second tour in the Autumn of '71, DeVito quit and was replaced by Demitri Callas (keeping it in the family!) They also managed to return to the limelight in America on one of Ralph Nader's Madison Square Gardens oldie shows. They secured a standing ovation from a 22,000-plus audience before playing a note. Their second and third British tours were even more successful than the first. Confined mainly to the northern cabaret circuit they scored huge audiences with the scampi and chips clientele in Sheffield and Stockton. The third tour ended with a sell-out at the London Palladium when half of the recording industry turned out to pay tribute.
In 1972, the group signed with Tamla Motown. For the second time they were associated with a large black independent. So far the items released have met with critical acclaim but few sales. The L.P. Chameleon was considered by many to be one of the finest pop albums of 1972. Earlier in the year Bob Gaudio left the group as a performer to concentrate on writing and producing. He was replaced by Clay Jordan, who has also since departed to be superseded by Bill DeLoaca Jnr. The group's drummer has been promoted into the group proper, thus making the billing as Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons literally accurate. Four line-up changes would normally cripple a band during a relatively short time like two years. But they seem to be fast moving into the same realm as The Drifters, The Coasters and The Inkspots. Almost an institution.
The group will be touring England again around April this year and hopefully some of the more obscure periods of their career can be delved into. More information on the early days of Bob Crewe would be of interest and, by way of a postscript, Crewe recently signed a producer contract with Motown. The Four Seasons' next album will in fact be a Crewe/Gaudio co-production. Back to mono? The man mainly responsible for the signing of the group and the linking of Bob Crewe to Motown is Ewart Anber, who as president of Vee Jay records in 1962 first took up the group's option. Will the circle be unbroken?
On record: recommended listening
I have confined the records discussed here to albums, where possible the most accessible ones. Of their some 70 singles and 35 albums the majority, in England, anyway, are deleted and fairly hard to dig up. It would be sheer pretension on my part to attempt to analyse their music in any other way than on pure entertainment/excitement levels. Apart from one or two album tracks only Genuine Imitation Life Gazette has any serious content in both lyrics and music. To the listener who, under no circumstances, could be prevailed upon to get into the Four Seasons, this album will come as mindshaker. Valli phrases so well you almost think he never gave a damn on their earlier records, Gaudio plays some beautifully stylised piano, notably on 'Wall Street Village Day'. The use of phasing is very much in evidence at a time when it wasn't the popular thing on record and its use here shows that Gaudio knew more than most how to use it to the full mood value. The album was released in England with a crappy cover taken from the comic cuts insert of the US sleeve, on Philips 6640002. But you should be able to get the original U.S. copy: there are quite a lot available over here at very cheap prices, American cutouts. Then you can be the first one on your block to display the sleeve that inspired both Thick As A Brick and Sometime In New York City (Tull had the audacity to accept an award for design and I bet blues singer Little Milton wasn't happy about the headlines on that album either). Life and the Mowest album Chameleon are, for the post-San Francisco rock fan, the best places to start. Chameleon is a fine example of modern rock, particularly evocative of the sound of the West Coast (where the groups were never very popular). The songs are some of the best pop songs of the year, and backed by all Motown musicians they manage to bring themselves right up to date. The bass playing, as with the majority of Motown records, is handled by a cat with 20 fingers. The group's obligatos seem to contribute more to the construction of the songs than ever before and consequently the versatility of Valli's unique range is superbly utilised. Gaudio's flair for concise and cogent songs makes me hope that someone will suggest he records a solo set as soon as possible, if he hasn't already thought of it himself.
The early albums on Vee Jay (Stateside) are not terribly exciting, falling into that concept of LP marketing which was prevalent among R & B orientated companies a decade ago. A couple of hit 45's, their flips, some originals not suitable for singles, and a few versions of oldies:Sherry And 11 Others; Ain't That A Shame And 11 Others. Their move to Philips brought no change. Dawn Go Away And 11 Other Great Songs, Rag Doll And Other Hits. The oldie cuts on their early sets were versions of some of the great DooWop classics, the street-corner symphonies of Eastern cities like New York. It was natural as their whole style was basically black and it's also right to note as Charlie Gillett did in Sound Of The City that the group rose to fame singing in a style that was unacceptable to a white audience when performed by blacks. When the Vee Jay masters were regained, an album collecting many of these cuts was issued as Looking Back (Philips 7752), a beautiful collection of classics. 'Sincerely', 'Since I Don't Have You', 'Long Lonely Nights', Tonite Tonite', and 'Why Do Fools Fall In Love' are among the selections.
Sing Big Hits (Philips SBL 7687) has two distinct sides. One is devoted to songs by Bacharach/David and the other to Bob Dylan. It's almost like two different groups. The B/David side features more of Crewe's Spector jobs with what sounds like two dustbin lids being banged together on 'Always Something There To Remind Me'. Great stuff, all original interpretations. Dylan's songs, on the other hand, are treated in the main as they should be; sparse with little backing apart from the group's own instruments. Valli's voice lends itself to the funky arrangement of 'Rolling Stone' and the powerhouse version of 'Queen Jane Approximately' where he spits out the lyrics in a vocal cross between Dylan himself and Lou Reed, a nice evil New York sound. Dylan freaks should note that the man did not object at all so there's no need for you to. Edizione D'Oro is a definitive double album collection of all their greatest hits up to 'Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, on Philips SBL 6640002. Unfortunately it suffers from a surfeit of alternate takes. (Rumour has it that many of the tracks are in fact re-recorded, and if possible you'd be better off with earlier Gold Vault Of Hits (Philips 7719),Second Vault Of Golden Hits (Philips 7751) or the newly released budget priced Big Ones on Philips. Of course despite its few shortcomings Edizione does represent the best value for money. As this selection shows, the Seasons have managed to repackage their best as many times as The Lovin Spoonful, The Mamas and Papas and Cream.
In February Phonogram are reissuing 'Don't Think Twice' as a single with an old Vee Jay dancer 'Marlena' which is a bargain and a potential hit, whilst Polydor, on the first volume of a new oldies series Carats (Polydor 2940 – 201), give the first UK airing to the rare Gone label cut 'Bermuda'. Mowest will undoubtedly issue some brand new stuff to tie in with the April tour.
Finally, if they breeze your way in April don't miss a chance to see one of the real heavyweight bands of the early sixties. Chameleon has proved that they're still a major band in the early seventies despite their lack of hit recordings.
© Bob Fisher, 1973